Russia: No Timetable for Turkish Withdrawal from Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Chinese Premier at the Kremlin in Moscow on September 18, 2019. (Photo by Pavel Golovkin / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read PAVEL GOLOVKIN/AFP/Getty Images)
PAVEL GOLOVKIN/AFP/Getty Images

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday there is no fixed timetable for Turkish troops to withdraw from northeastern Syria, even though the objective of their invasion has ostensibly been met.

Since Russian forces are now both patrolling alongside the Turks and digging in to prevent them from pushing any further into Syria, presumably there is no fixed timetable for Russian withdrawal, either.

According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Kurdish military forces are withdrawing from the “safe zone” near the Turkish border, but Kurdish civilians will not be required to relocate.

Turkey said on Wednesday that it saw “no need” to resume military action because the Kurdish YPG militia is withdrawing to beyond 20 miles from the border as Turkey demanded. Turkey did not announce any plans to withdraw its own forces at that time.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday vowed to crush any Kurdish militia units that do not pull back from the safe zone. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) accused Turkey of violating the ceasefire and launching a major offensive against three villages.

Erdogan railed against Western leaders for refusing to listen to Turkey’s concerns about Syrian Kurdish forces working with the PKK separatist organization in Turkey over the past four years, leaving Turkey with no choice but to use unilateral military force.

“We receive with a bitter smile the attempt of those who are responsible for the deaths of 50 million people in World War II to give us a lesson of humanity,” he sneered in response to complaints about the Turkish invasion of Syria.

“For democracy, rule of law and human rights, I invite the whole world to see, accept and take a position. YPG/PKK is as dangerous a terrorist organization as Daesh,” he declared. “Daesh” is another name for the Islamic State or ISIS.

Erdogan repeated his claim that the Syrian “safe zone” will not only protect Turkey from Kurdish militants but will also give some two million Syrian refugees an opportunity to return to their homeland. At least one Syrian opposition leader, Syrian Forum CEO Ghassan Hitto, agreed on Thursday that both the current and previous Turkish incursions into Syria have created opportunities for refugees to return.

“I use Turkish statistics for the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations, and since then, about 350,000 Syrians have returned to Syria. Because when Turkey comes in – this is a fact – they invest somewhat in the infrastructure in terms of roads, communications, and these are all required tools for an early recovery,” said Hitto, referring to two earlier Turkish military operations in Syria.

The European Parliament (EP) voted on Thursday to condemn the Turkish invasion and recommended sanctions against Turkey. The resolution blamed Turkey for a “high number of civilian and military casualties,” along with at least 300,000 displaced civilians, and “firmly rejected” the Turkish-Russian agreement to establish a safe zone. 

The EP accused Erdogan of “weaponizing” refugees and using them to “blackmail the European Union” with his periodic threats to open the gates for a new flood of Syrians into Europe. They also expressed concern over “reports that hundreds of ISIS prisoners are escaping from camps in northern Syria amid the Turkish offensive, which increases the risk of a resurgence of the terrorist group.”

The Turkish Foreign Ministry lashed out at the European Parliament after the vote and “absolutely rejected” the resolution.

“We are not surprised by this decision taken by a Parliament constantly hosting terrorists,” the Foreign Ministry said.

“The EP, which despite all our explanations adopted a decision inconsistent with the facts, pressed on with its biased attitude toward Turkey lacking common sense. The decision shows that the EP cannot properly follow important developments in the regional and global arena, objectively evaluate causes and consequences, and develop sound and relevant strategies,” the statement said.

The Turkish statement insisted the Europeans should be grateful to Turkey for acting to “eliminate a terror threat, secure Syria’s territorial integrity, prevent more illegal migration, and ensure the safe return of Syrian refugees to their homeland.”

Turkish media noted U.S. Secretary of Defense Mike Esper’s statement on Thursday that the United States never promised to help the Syrian Kurds establish an autonomous state.

“Our partnership with the SDF, which was a very good one and still is a good one by the way, was about defeating ISIS. By March of 19, 2019, we clearly destroyed the physical caliphate of ISIS. Our commitment to the Kurds was not to help them establish an autonomous Kurdish state and defend them against Turkey. And that’s just the cold hard facts,” Esper said.

The secretary of defense said the small deployment of U.S. soldiers in northeastern Syria was withdrawn after it was “made very clear to us” that Turkey would invade regardless of their presence.

“I was not about to put less than 50 U.S. soldiers in between a 15,000-man-plus Turkish army preceded by Turkish militia and jeopardize the lives of those servicemen, nor was I about to start a fight with a NATO ally,” he explained.

Esper nevertheless strongly criticized Turkey for putting the U.S. and NATO in a “very terrible situation” with its “unwarranted” invasion and warned Turkey is “heading in the wrong direction” and “spinning closer into Russia’s orbit” as events unfold.

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